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Meeting Pretty Jesus

Photo by Marius Masalar on Unsplash

I facilitated a presentation/workshop on TESDA’s Music Day some years back. We took the time to appreciate Adventist Music culture and what exactly that term meant. After playing 7 one-minute clips of various styles of worship music, I asked the congregation what they thought the differences were between the styles. With a variety of comparisons drawn, interspersed with lots of giggling, I revealed that all clips came from Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) churches worldwide.This shocked everyone.

I think we, as people, tend to underestimate the cumulative effects of culture, current events and upbringing on what we think of as appropriate. Even within a community where we tend to refer to Adventist Music, when interrogated, the notion can unravel before our eyes. So when presented with the challenge of propagating the ‘Adventist way of doing things’, commonly two camps arise: extreme conservatism and outright liberalism.

Instead of using my presentation to answer the question of my brief (What Is Adventist Music?), there appeared to be a more useful way to think about the challenge. See, Christianity was, for a long time, at the vanguard of invention and innovation that heavily impacted the secular world. As an example, the codices (religious books as a replacement of scrolls) were invented to aid Christians in proof-texting as a means to convince the Jews of Jesus’ Messiahship; the first book printed by the movable type press was the Gutenberg Bible; Martin Luther and the early Reformers reshaped the beer industry forever.

The successful propagation of Christianity necessitates invention and innovation by its adherents to forward the commission of Matthew 28, and this creativity often changes the world in subtle but concrete ways. This is a short account of what was presented on that day. It shows the products of our creative labor in a short hour on that Sabbath afternoon. Sometimes, though, progression gets lost in translation.

Meeting Jesus

In South Africa, there is a common chorus Seventh-day Adventists sing called Meeting Jesus. It goes something like this:

Meeting Jesus; loving Jesus
when my Jesus comes again.
I will meet Him, I will love Him,
when my Jesus comes again.

However, a majority of people sing “Pretty Jesus, loving Jesus…” When one considers the issue of language, it is not hard to imagine how we might have arrived at that.

The majority of singing is done in the vernacular languages of South Africa, isiXhosa, isiZulu, and SeSotho, for instance. Being a multilingual society, people often translate the words of hymns into different languages to accommodate the various cultures represented in a worship venue. The most common hymnal used among black SDA congregations is UKrestu Esihlabelelweni, which was translated by Joseph Hlubi and Elijah Kuboni. In Zulu, the chorus is translated:

Jesu omhle, onothando;
nxa uJesu ezayo.
Ngizombona; ngizomthanda;
nxa uJesu ezayo.

It is mostly a direct translation of the portion I quoted above. However, in translation, unlike transliteration, some creative freedom is sometimes employed to give a more poetic rendition of the original text. In this case, the first line transliterates to “Pretty Jesus full of love.” This deviation is accepted and hardly raises an eyebrow.

Back Translation

Native vernacular speakers think first in their mother tongue, and therefore, when singing the English version hear Pretty Jesus, loving Jesus as the most accurate translation of Jesu om’hle, onothando. Which is 100% correct, but it ignores the original wording in English. This back translation results in an awkward joke often shared by the chorister during congregational singing, in which they attempt to correct the audience of the misinterpretation of the original English lyrics.

It got me thinking about the hymnal translation and how the Zulu translation of hymn 195 (264 in the SDA Hymnal) O, Yeka Umlilo Lowo! (O For That Flame of Living Fire, by Daniel B. Towner) only had four verses when the English version and Xhosa translation each had five.

In a multilingual society such as South Africa, it is common in our churches for the individual to sing in their language of comfort even when others select a different tongue. Since we all are singing essentially the same message, the mosaic of tongues simply adds texture to our worship experience. I often sing different parts of a single song in multiple languages, depending on my preference for the particular wording of a verse given in a particular tongue.

During congregational singing, Zulu-speaking singers would sing verses 1, 2, 4, 5, and 5 again (in that order) in order to compensate for the English- and Xhosa-speaking singers ‘extra’ verse. Ideologically, it creates disharmony, in that, while everyone is singing verse 3, Zulu singers are singing the lyrics to verse 4. To solve this, we opted to translate verse 3 into Zulu so that we would complement the singing of our fellow congregants.

We did this by first looking at the original English words and translating them line by line. After the second line, we realized that the Xhosa translation (a sister language to Zulu) had captured the wording for the final two lines in a way which we could borrow and tweak into Zulu. After the whole process, I consulted a Swati friend (also in the Nguni language group with Zulu, Xhosa, and Ndebele) and he offered a rendering that mimicked an abcb rhyming scheme, which was similar to the abab scheme in the English original.

Below is the full Zulu version of the song O for the Flame of Living Fire, as proposed by Tshwane East SDA Church at our Music Day 2018:

Ngi yafuna lowo mlilo,
Wabangcwelw basendulo;
Wabaqondis’ ezulwini,
Benesibindengozini!

U phi Nkosi lowo Moya,
Ophawul’ uAbrahama;
Owathambis’ uPaule,
Wazuz’ amandla ezulu.

Lowo Moya wase ndulo,
Waveza uThando Lwakho;
Wakhanyisel’ uIsaya;
Wahol’ uDavide njalo

Amandl’ abe kuElijah,
A saphela yini namhla?
A khazimlis’ uMosisi,
uJobe wabekezela.

Nkosi, khumbula endulo,
Phindu thele umsa wAkho;
Nxa si zibhekise kuWe,
Thel’ uMoya wAkh’ oNgcwele.

It was quite the program and had we not run out of time, we would have translated ‘the missing verse’ in Shona as well. I am humbled by a post on Facebook that captures how many felt after the presentation/workshop,

One of the best Music days I ever attended, in 10 years, was Tesda Sda Church this year.”

I echo the same man’s later post that we should, rather than forever translate English hymns into vernacular languages, compose a hymn book of hymns written in our own vernacular tongues. It is time we crafted a large library of music of our own creation, so that the African may shape her own religious experience of the Divine.

By Toka Moshesh

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